TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Quarterback Christian Ponder cried. Coach Jimbo Fisher shed tears of his own.
At the 50-yard line, Florida State players hoisted a Gator head and jumped and hooted as if they'd won the national title. They had done no such thing. They had only handed a mediocre team its fifth loss, but the 31-7 win against Florida meant so much more. It ended six years of misery, pain and frustration.
It finally allowed linebacker Nigel Bradham to see Doak Campbell at full roar -- the way it was when he was a kid growing up in nearby Crawfordville. It will allow tailback Lonnie Pryor to return home to Okeechobee and tell all those Florida fans that he chose correctly when he signed with FSU in 2009. It will take the Seminoles closer to cornerback Greg Reid's dream of an ESPN College GameDay visit to Tallahassee sometime next season. "Oh, they will come," Reid said Saturday night.
Florida State isn't back. Not quite yet. "We still have a long way to go," Reid said. "We know that."
But the Seminoles are on their way.
Throughout Saturday's fourth quarter, the score of the N.C. State-Maryland game was whispered along the FSU sideline. To keep the Seminoles focused on the demolition at hand, there were no announcements in the stadium until take-a-knee time. It wasn't until after the flowing tears and the Gator head trophy and the midfield celebration that the video board clicked over to the broadcast of the goings-on in College Park. When the Seminoles saw the Terrapins had built an insurmountable lead, they roared.
N.C. State's loss gave FSU the ACC Atlantic Division crown. The Seminoles will face Virginia Tech for the ACC title next week in Charlotte, N.C. That would be the cherry atop this season. Conference pride aside, the state title FSU clinched Saturday is far more important for the program's future. The Seminoles beat Florida and Miami for the first time in the same season since going wire-to-wire at No. 1 in 1999. And FSU didn't just beat the Gators and Hurricanes. It crushed them.
In a lot of ways, Saturday was the reverse of the 2005 game. The week before that game, Florida gagged away a chance to win the SEC East by losing to an inferior South Carolina team. First-year coach Urban Meyer laid down the law as the team plane sat on the runway in Gainesville that night.
Meanwhile, seven-win Florida State had backed into the ACC Atlantic title. With FSU looking ahead to Virginia Tech the following week in Jacksonville, Florida hammered the Seminoles, 34-7. In the locker room after the game, Meyer watched smiling recruits soak in the atmosphere. Brandon James, a scatback from St. Augustine, was there. So was Brandon Spikes, a linebacker from North Carolina. So was a left-handed quarterback from Jacksonville named Tim Tebow. "I remember walking around with my hands in my pockets," Meyer joked in 2007, "because people started trying to commit and shake our hand."
First-year FSU coach Fisher probably had to shove his hands in his pockets Saturday. Karlos Williams, the nation's No. 2 safety prospect according to Rivals.com, probably tried to play the same pied piper role future Florida offensive lineman Carl Johnson did that day in 2005. Like Johnson back then, Williams is a true believer. He has been committed to FSU essentially since his brother, Vince, signed with the Seminoles in 2008. Most of FSU's class of 2011 commitments joined the younger Williams on Saturday. So did some of the better undecided players in the class. Tim Jernigan, a defensive tackle from Lake City, watched the annihilation. So did Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-6 receiver from Belle Glade. So did Tony Steward, the St. Augustine native considered the nation's top linebacker prospect by Rivals.com.
FSU's Pryor said he wouldn't have any question which school he'd choose if he were a recruit at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday. "Florida's a great team," Pryor said. "They'll bounce back. But if I had to choose tonight, I'm a Nole."
Meyer's sales pitch to those same recruits probably will appeal to those who want to save the Gators from this year's regression. The program that dominated college football during Tebow's time in Gainesville (three SEC east titles, two SEC titles, two national titles) looked even more atrocious in person than it has on television all season. The Gators can't choose a quarterback from a group of three. Even if they could, he would have no one to throw to. Florida's young defense allowed FSU receivers to run wide open all day.
"Obviously, we are down a little bit," Meyer said Saturday. At least he remains a contender for the understatement national title.
Meyer's tone after the loss suggests he plans to make changes. So Florida might not be down long. But the Gators might have provided the opening the Seminoles needed to recruit their way beyond regional prominence and back to national prominence.
If youngsters such as Reid, Pryor and cornerback Xavier Rhodes do wind up bringing FSU back into the national title picture in 2011 or 2012, they owe a huge debt to 2010 seniors such as Ponder and center Ryan McMahon. Those players endured the bleakest times -- three years of uncertainty as Bobby Bowden tried to hang on even though the Seminoles needed a change at the top.
Saturday night, Fisher lost it when he embraced Ponder at midfield. Ponder had endured the dark times, and he has helped lead the Seminoles back toward the light. "That guy is the ultimate player," Fisher said. "I wish I could coach him for a thousand years."
Ponder will move on after this season, but Fisher believes redshirt sophomore E.J. Manuel has an almost identical mental makeup. Though Ponder, McMahon and guard Rodney Hudson will be gone next year, Fisher believes they have instilled the Seminoles with a new attitude.
"We're becoming a factor again in this league and a factor again in this state." Fisher said. "That makes us relevant."
FSU didn't beat a great Florida team Saturday. It didn't even beat a good Florida team Saturday. But the Seminoles pounded a team from Gainesville that wore orange and blue, and that meant everything. It was a necessary step in FSU's march back to prominence. The fact that they can top off their state title with an ACC title next week made Saturday that much sweeter.
"We are competing to get back on top," Bradham said. "We are competing to be one of the top teams in the nation in the future."